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“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”*…



The wonders of modern millinery…

Caffeine-fueled cram sessions are routine occurrences on any college campus. But what if there was a better, safer way to learn new or difficult material more quickly? What if “thinking caps” were real?

In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Vanderbilt psychologists Robert Reinhart, a Ph.D. candidate, and Geoffrey Woodman, assistant professor of psychology, show that it is possible to selectively manipulate our ability to learn through the application of a mild electrical current to the brain, and that this effect can be enhanced or depressed depending on the direction of the current…

The success rate is far better than that observed in studies of pharmaceuticals or other types of psychological therapy,” said Woodman. The researchers found that the effects of a 20-minute stimulation did transfer to other tasks and lasted about five hours.

The implications of the findings extend beyond the potential to improve learning. It may also have clinical benefits in the treatment of conditions like schizophrenia and ADHD, which are associated with performance-monitoring deficits.

Read more at “Electric ‘thinking cap’ controls learning speed” in ScienceBlog.

* Shakespeare, Hamlet Act II, Scene 2


As we crank up our crania, we might recall that it was on this date in 1747 that Benjamin Franklin sent a thank you note to British scientist Peter Collinson:

 Your kind present of an electric tube, with directions for using it, has put several of us on making electrical experiments, in which we have observed some particular phenomena that we look upon to be new. I was never before engaged in any study that so totally engrossed my attention and time.

As the Franklin Tercentenary notes:

The study of electricity was the most spectacular and fashionable branch of Enlightenment natural philosophy. Franklin was immediately hooked when the Library Company’s British agent, Peter Collinson, sent him a glass tube used to generate static electricity. Franklin taught himself to perform basic electrical “tricks” with it and was soon immersed in trying to understand how this surprising phenomenon worked.

Through his electrical investigations, Franklin developed important new theories, complete with new terms and instruments to describe and demonstrate them. As usual, his concern centered on developing useful applications for his discoveries: the result was a lightning protection system that is still in use today, notably on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Franklin’s experiments were known all over Europe, initially through his personal correspondence and then through publications initiated by colleagues abroad. Later, Franklin’s international fame as a scientist would give him the status and political access to succeed as America’s premier diplomat.

Franklin at work on his most famous experiment




Cracking the uncrackable code?…


Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, a foundational tenet of quantum mechanics, is essentially the assertion that when one tries to measure one aspect of a particle precisely, say its position, one necessarily “blurs out” one’s ability to know with any precision its speed– or vice versa.  Indeed, Heisenberg’s original word for the phenomenon translates better as “indeterminacy”–raising the prospect of a physical world whose nature is, beyond some incomplete point, unknowable.

Still, as mysterious as the concept is, it has offered a tantalizingly-concrete prospect:  the “uncrackable” codes of quantum cryptography.  If “listening in” distorts the message, then the eavesdropper is out of luck.

But now, as the BBC reports, researchers at the University of Toronto have raised some serious uncertainty about the Uncertainty Principle itself:

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is in part an embodiment of the idea that in the quantum world, the mere act of measuring can affect the result.

But the idea had never been put to the test, and a team writing in Physical Review Letters says “weak measurements” prove the rule was never quite right…

This problem with the act of measuring is not confined to the quantum world, explained senior author of the new study, Aephraim Steinberg of the University of Toronto.

“You find a similar thing with all sorts of waves,” he told BBC News. “A more familiar example is sound: if you’ve listened to short clips of audio recordings you realise if they get too short you can’t figure out what sound someone is making, say between a ‘p’ and a ‘b’.

“If I really wanted to say as precisely as possible, ‘when did you make that sound?’, I wouldn’t also be able to ask what sound it was, I’d need to listen to the whole recording.”

The problem with Heisenberg’s theory was that it vastly predated any experimental equipment or approaches that could test it at the quantum level: it had never been proven in the lab.

“Heisenberg had this intiuition about the way things ought to be, but he never really proved anything very strict about the value,” said Prof Steinberg.

“Later on, people came up with the mathematical proof of the exact value.”…

In 2011, they carried out a version of a classic experiment on photons – the smallest indivisible packets of light energy – that plotted out the ways in which they are both wave and particle, something the rules strictly preclude.

This time, they aimed to use so-called weak measurements on pairs of photons, putting into practice an idea first put forward in a 2010 paper in the New Journal of Physics.

Photons can be prepared in pairs which are inextricably tied to one another, in a delicate quantum state called entanglement, and the weak measurement idea is to infer information about them as they pass, before and after carrying out a formal measurement.

What the team found was that the act of measuring did not appreciably “blur out” what could be known about the pairs.

It remains true that there is a fundamental limit of knowability, but it appears that, in this case, just trying to look at nature does not add to that unavoidably hidden world.

Or, as the authors put it: “The quantum world is still full of uncertainty, but at least our attempts to look at it don’t have to add as much uncertainty as we used to think!”…

“There’s actually a lot of technology that relies on quantum uncertainty now, and the main one is quantum cryptography – using quantum systems to convey our information securely – and that mostly boils down to the uncertainty principle.”

A pdf of the University of Toronto group’s paper is here.


As we reconsider the benefits of entanglement, we might spare a thought for Pieter van Musschenbroek; he died on this date in 1761.  A one-time student of Isaac Newton (who helped transmit Newton’s ideas through Europe), van Musschenbroek was a professor of mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, and medicine. (Those were the days…)  Fascinated by electrostatics, he used what he learned from his father, an accomplished designer and manufacturer of scientific instruments, to build the first capacitor (that’s to say, device that can store an electric charge), the Leyden Jar– named for the city that was home to van Musschenbroek’s university.

Leyden jar construction






That Obscure Object of Definition…

Via friend P deV, the “obscure unit of the week: Bohr magnetons per angstrom”…

In explaining their (pretty remarkable) findings that magnetism can, in some circumstances, behave like electricity— “magnetricity” if one will– scientists from the London Centre for Nanotechnology invoked evidence denominated in what has to one of the rarer metrics around:  Bohr magnetons per angstrom.

But worth understanding, as the observation suggests that it may be possible to create units of digital storage one magnetic monopole large– that’s to say, about the size of an atom.  As lead investigator Steven Bramwell said (with typical British understatement), “monopoles could one day be used as a much more compact form of memory than anything available today.”

Individual magnetic ‘charges’ – equivalent to the north and south poles of a magnet – have been observed inside a crystalline material called spin ice (Image: STFC)

See the New Scientist report here; and more on the discovery at Next Big Future, here.

As we practice our scales, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948 that the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to T.S. Eliot, who undermined the need for more storage when he observed that “the most important thing for poets to do is to write as little as possible.”

Eliot, by Wyndham Lewis

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